AMAC Exclusive – By Walter Samuel
For a man whose legislative achievements – the so-called “Inflation Reduction Act” most prominent among them – were passed on strictly party-line votes, Joe Biden has shown an uncharacteristic embrace of bipartisanship when it comes to the Senate’s “compromise bill” tying funding for Ukraine and Israel to various measures to “enhance border security.” That should be a red flag that all is not right with a proposal that serves the interests of politicians rather than the American people.
The origins and development of this Frankenstein bill, the text of which was released late on February 4, represent everything wrong with American politics and governance. The process was motivated by the worst sort of bipartisanship, namely politicians afraid to formulate clear positions on contentious issues, who preferred instead to outsource the blame for unpopular positions to the other party rather than to justify their own actions to voters.
Biden’s embrace of the bill represents the most base form of political opportunism. With no preliminary text available before Sunday night beyond leaks, and the final draft spanning 370-pages of impenetrable prose, Biden has been free to promise the sky, the moon, and the stars.
With final passage unlikely due to justified opposition from House Republicans, Biden knows he will have no need to deliver on any of those promises. He can then outsource his failure to deliver on any of them to his favorite boogeyman, Donald J. Trump, who, to hear Biden tell it, has triggered mass inflation while masterminding the ambitions of Russia, Iran, and China, not to mention mass migration.
In short, this so-called “compromise” has become a tool that has allowed the entire American political class to do nothing for months while scapegoating the only prominent figure to call them out on their negligence.
Let us review the origins of this Dada-esque process.
Last September, Kevin McCarthy reached an agreement with the White House to avoid a government shutdown, in exchange for which every single House Democrat promptly voted with a small group of Republicans to depose him as speaker. The message was obvious: if you are going to deal with the Biden administration or the modern Democratic Party, make sure you are paid in advance, and expect the checks to bounce. Republicans kept that in mind when the administration requested a further $61 billion in aid to Ukraine.
The Biden administration seems to have been shocked when Republican members of Congress expressed skepticism about approving that sum without question. They should not have been after the treatment of Kevin McCarthy, and not when legitimate concerns existed both about how prior allocations for Ukraine have been spent and what the administration’s long-term strategy is.
These questions did not originate with Republicans. They are being asked by Ukrainian officials themselves. No less a figure than the commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces took to the Economist to express his concerns about the lack of any strategy to avoid a stalemate turning into a war of attrition Ukraine could not win. Meanwhile, concerns about corruption led to the removal of Kyiv’s Defense Minister in September along with six of his deputies.
The Biden administration could have resolved this issue by explaining both its strategy and how the additional $61 billion would contribute to Ukraine’s success, but that would have required the White House to possess answers to those questions. Instead, the White House resorted to its tried and true tactic of seeking to bully Republicans by labeling any opposition to its Ukraine policy as support for Putin, turning a dispute over foreign policy strategy into a domestic partisan squabble.
This could have been a chance for Congressional Republicans to assert their constitutional oversight role and compel the Biden administration to formulate answers. In the absence of the Biden administration formulating a strategy, the House and Senate GOP could have set conditions that would have forced the administration to do so, such as restricting the amount of aid, what it could be spent on, and how quickly it could be dispersed.
This, however, would have required Republicans to publicly adopt a firm position on Ukraine. The party is split between a fading neoconservative wing which would fund a Ukrainian march on Moscow to the last American tax dollar, and those who think the continuation of the war is dangerous for American interests and want it to end.
Neither group wished to compromise. Republican neoconservatives have repeatedly been willing to make common cause with Biden against their own base to pursue their maximalist goals, even when confronted with evidence that Biden’s commitment to Ukraine is insincere and aimed more at Donald Trump than Vladimir Putin.
In turn, those who have concluded that the war is a stalemate and that there is much to recommend a policy of eventually reaching a cease-fire that leaves no one satisfied, need to confront the reality that the best way of achieving that outcome is to maintain Ukraine’s defenses enough to force Putin to negotiate. Cutting off Ukraine altogether incentivizes Putin to continue the war.
With neoconservatives unwilling to attach any conditions to Ukraine aid, and Democrats unwilling to make concessions with the neocons on their side, the realists made the obvious move of blocking the aid bill absent conditions.
Enter “border security.” In order to understand what went wrong with this process, and why Republicans have been routed during the negotiations, we need to realize that they embraced demands to “secure the border” to avoid formulating any clear demands on Ukraine. That meant they did not push for tying Ukraine aid to “border security” because they had any idea of what they wanted regarding border security, but because they also had no idea what they wanted to do on Ukraine, and if they had to talk pointlessly about a topic, they preferred to do so about the border.
This was a fatal tactical error. There is nobody in the American government more adept at talking aimlessly for extended periods than the United States Senate, and the instant negotiations were accepted, power shifted from the House to the Senate. More critically, rather than negotiations between the House Republicans, who had actual differences with the administration on the border and Ukraine, they were now between Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell, both of whom largely agreed on the two issues, and perceived the process as a method to pass aid to Ukraine and “a bill” on the border rather than to accomplish anything of substance on either topic.
It is hardly a surprise, then, that this process has seen zero discussion about Ukraine in any shape or form, and almost all the “content” of the border “deal” is cosmetic. Upon reviewing the text of the bill, which includes, among other things, billions of dollars for the same NGOs who have actively aided and abetted the crisis thus far, the main purpose of the legislation seems to have been to produce slides for the PowerPoint presentation that will be used to justify passage, rather than any actual substantive fixes to the unfolding disaster. If anything, Democrat negotiators succeeded in their strategy of locking in a scheme whereby large numbers of illegal border crossers gain legal sanction to stay and work.
It is significant that Joe Biden only embraced the deal after Donald Trump came out against it, noting it theoretically “requires” Biden to do things he can already do, while limiting the power of future presidents to go beyond them. The cosmetic process has produced a cosmetic product.
Biden has long been trapped between the need to be seen as doing something about border security to appeal to swing voters on the one hand and the support of many members of his left wing for open borders on the other. Donald Trump’s opposition, correct on substance, made the bill much more attractive to Biden.
If Biden actually supported the “compromise,” he would shut up. With Donald Trump on record against it, Biden’s open embrace merely reinforces Trump’s argument that the bill is heavily skewed in favor of Democratic priorities.
However, Biden does not want it to pass, in which case he would have to take responsibility for legislation failing to do anything to help Ukraine or border security. Rather, he wants to pretend that there is a bill that will magically force Putin from power, destroy Hamas, and create a forcefield along the border which will let future Democratic voters through, but somehow ensure no one has to house or feed them. Then he wants the bill to fail so those arguments are never tested, and he can blame Trump for all of his own disasters.
Every Republican involved in this process is complicit in this outcome. That of course includes the Senate GOP leadership who eagerly took part, but also extends to those in the House who, rather than articulate an actual policy on Ukraine that reflected legitimate concerns, chose to dodge the question. Their guilt is less in that, unlike Biden, who directly is responsible for border policy, they were not responsible for the flaws of the current Ukraine policy. Nonetheless, they are engaged in a similar exercise in blame-shifting, one which has come close to allowing Biden to escape accountability for both policies.
In short, if bipartisanship is a buzzword for avoiding accountability, this entire process has been a spectacular example. Sadly, what America needs is not bipartisan government as an end in and of itself, but rather for our leaders to accept responsibility.
Walter Samuel is the pseudonym of a prolific international affairs writer and academic. He has worked in Washington as well as in London and Asia, and holds a Doctorate in International History.